PAKTIA PROVINCE, Afghanistan - The soldiers swarmed through the ridges and draws like so many ants on a mound. Enemy fighters had just fired off a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades at a passing convoy in the area. They’d been sent to chase off the attackers during this warm day in early May, but the wicked terrain threatened to turn these hunters into prey.
The soldiers weren’t alone, though. Thanks to an intricate but streamlined process, a duo of A-10s guarded them from high above the Afghan hilltops. The soldiers continued their search, confident that earth-shaking firepower lay just a radio call away should they get into trouble — although this time the deadly ordnance didn’t have to be used.
Frontline soldiers say they depend on aircraft like the A-10s — and in particular on their ability to deliver battle-changing airstrikes within minutes. But those airstrikes have come under fire since highly publicized attacks on two villages in Farah province on May 4 killed dozens of Afghan civilians. Afterward, Afghan President Hamid Karzai demanded an end to U.S. airstrikes in his country.
Counterinsurgency experts say soldiers must be willing to fight the enemy in close combat to avoid civilian casualties, but Afghanistan’s formidable terrain and intense firefights often require additional fire support.
"This could be the difference between them living and dying," said Air Force Master Sgt. Allen Hawk, a joint terminal attack controller, the link between ground units and Air Force jets.
Air vs. ground support
Jets have several advantages over other fire-support options. They have an array of bombs, ranging from 500 to 2,000 pounds, with fuses that the pilot can adjust on the fly — exploding the bomb in the air above troops or delaying the explosion until the bomb has penetrated a building, said Air Force Col. James Thomas, commander of the 504th Expeditionary Air Support Operations Group and all the joint terminal attack controllers, or JTACS, in Afghanistan.
By contrast, the impact of artillery and mortars is adjusted only by changing the number of shells fired, said Sgt. Nicholas Packard, a forward observer with Troop C, 1st Squadron, 40th Cavalry Regiment.
Jets also have "sniper pods" that can feed video directly into a company headquarters, said 1st Lt. Paul Cleary, Troop C fire support officer. They don’t have to land to refuel, and they’re faster than helicopters. International Security Assistance Forces can have a plane overhead within 12 minutes of being called, Thomas said.
"We can be in multiple different locations in a short amount of time," he said.
But jets have added risks, too.
Many of the bombs are directed by GPS. Army forward observers use terrain features instead of map coordinates to tell pilots their own location, in case the pilot were to accidentally enter in the friendly unit’s position instead of the enemy’s, Packard said.
Helicopter pilots, on the other hand, must look at the target before they fire, adding an extra safeguard against killing civilians.
Despite the attention to civilian deaths caused by airstrikes, insurgents still cause the majority of civilian casualties. Insurgents caused at least 2,016, or 65 percent, of the 3,102 civilian deaths between 2006 and the first seven months of 2008, according to Human Rights Watch.
At the same time, it’s often faster and easier for units under attack to call up artillery or mortars, usually fired by soldiers in the same company or battalion as the soldiers under attack, Cleary said. Platoons almost always have a forward observer authorized to call in artillery or mortars.
Forward observers can talk to planes to help them scout ahead for enemy fighters, but the JTACs authorized to actually direct airstrikes are often found only at battalion level or higher.
The pilot can hear all sides of the conversation and has the full picture of what’s going on, Packard said.
Three legal principles guide when aircraft can drop bombs, said Col. Gary Brown, the Combined Air and Space Operations Center staff judge advocate. The strikes must be necessary to further the war effort; they must distinguish between combatants and noncombatants; and they must be proportional.
Beyond these basics, the situation becomes more disputed. With the distinction principle, for example, both the attacker and the defender have an obligation to avoid unnecessarily putting civilians in danger. However, Taliban fighters often mix among civilians to avoid American attacks or to create inflammatory civilian deaths.
Human Rights Watch said U.S. forces aren’t freed from their obligations just because Taliban fighters broke the rules. But Brown said he thinks "there is an argument that if the defender violates the principle of distinction [for example, by fighting from behind civilians] that the attacker could then carry out an attack and the collateral casualties that might result would actually be on the head of the defender."
In all, the military’s focus is on balancing the importance of the target against the risk of collateral damage, he said.
Brown resisted saying at what point — or even whether — an airstrike investigation would determine that the strike shouldn’t have happened. The investigators must look closely not only at the facts on the ground, but what the ground unit knew about those facts at the time — although Brown said that a previous case stemming from the Vietnam War’s My Lai massacre did set the precedent for American soldiers to be prosecuted for violating the laws of war.
"This is a guy getting shot at and taking casualties and he has to decide whether it’s a legitimate target," said Col. Greg Julian, the head U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan.
The military has developed extensive procedures to mitigate the risk of misguided airstrikes. Proportionality is the first line of defense. Commanders at all levels stress that airstrikes use no more force than necessary, Thomas said.
Said Julian: "Good gosh, there’s so many variables in every situation; there’s no situation the same."
Airstrike rules can in some ways be even more restrictive than those for ground units. Riflemen are usually allowed to shoot at anyone attacking them, provided they’ve identified the attacker. Jets will often first do a "show of force," such as a high-speed flyby, to stop small numbers of enemy fighters armed with just rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, Thomas said.
Packard described how he called in a pair of F-15s when soldiers saw suspicious people with flashlights milling around within sight of an outlying patrol base. As soon as the unknown group heard the jet engines, they turned off their lights and scattered; no bombs had to be dropped.
Said Hawk: "The ground commander has to figure out what he wants to do, what’s an acceptable risk to him."
Before the commander authorizes any attack, leaders determine who and what could be harmed. Qatar-based airmen arrange for strikes on longer-range, predetermined targets, but ground units that come under attack do their own "field collateral damage estimate."
A 2008 Human Rights Watch investigation into Afghanistan airstrikes determined that unplanned strikes were responsible for nearly all civilian deaths from airstrikes. Only one planned strike in both 2006 and 2007 killed civilians.
Planned attacks allow leaders to conduct more thorough reviews of potential harm to civilians.
Unplanned attacks require both positive identification and a "collateral damage assessment," but these are less thorough than those for planned attacks and they’re often made in the heat of the battle. The JTAC’s report may be one of the only checks done prior to a strike, the investigation found.
Human Rights Watch took particular aim at U.S. special operations forces. Small groups of lightly armed soldiers depend on rapid airstrikes to avoid being overwhelmed by larger numbers of insurgents. The problem is exacerbated because communication between these units and ISAF is frequently poor, the report concluded. A senior British commander asked U.S. special operations forces to leave his district because of mounting casualties.
Task Force Yukon soldiers must get approval from their brigade commander if any civilian structure is within 500 meters of the attack site. Such approval can take only moments.
"If we’re being shot at, usually they clear it," Cleary said.
Once the commander decides to drop bombs, the JTACs help him or her decide which bomb best suits the purposes. The dropping of a large bomb is so rare that soldiers at one Paktia cavalry troop recently were a bit envious that another company in their task force got to see a Joint Direct Attack Munition strike. Cleary and Packard have never called in an airstrike during their time in Afghanistan.
But those precautions don’t completely prevent civilian deaths. Insurgents like to attack from ridgelines that allow them to rapidly retreat into villages. Often, they attack U.S. forces from within civilian areas to make it harder for the soldiers to fight back, Cleary said.
"It’s a difficult balance, and it all comes down to what’s happening on the ground at the time," he said. "The more intense the firefight, the more you’re willing to risk getting in close."
Packard put it more bluntly: "Ultimately, collateral damage estimates come to: What are you willing to get ruined?"
Different rules of engagement
Task Force Yukon falls under ISAF control, but other U.S. units fall under Operation Enduring Freedom — a joint American, British and Afghan effort that is separate from ISAF. The two groups have different rules of engagement even though American forces are part of both operations.
They use the same standards for offensive operations but differ in using airstrikes defensively. Both require "hostile intent" for airstrikes. But NATO defines hostile intent as "manifest and overwhelming force," while the United States defines it as "the threat of the imminent use of force" — a much lower threshold that allows preemptive airstrikes.
American planes can perform attacks for either ISAF or Enduring Freedom.
The majority of civilian airstrike deaths come during OEF missions. This may be partly because OEF is concentrated in the south where the insurgency is strongest. But it may also be because of the different rules of engagement and OEF’s heavier reliance on special operations forces, Human Rights Watch said.
The United States and ISAF changed their bombing policy in 2007 after a former ISAF commander ordered a review of airstrike procedures. Units were directed not to resort immediately to airstrikes when they come in contact with enemy fighters and to withdraw when possible. But the number of civilian deaths has held steady, according to Human Rights Watch.
Other recommendations are sometimes ignored in practice. Human Rights Watch recommended using smaller, more targeted munitions, but May’s Farah province attack used about a dozen bombs, some up to 2,000 pounds. Julian said in many cases a single big bomb can cause less damage and be more targeted than several smaller bombs.
Not all the strikes occurred to protect soldiers in danger of being overrun, either. The organization determined that units sometimes used airstrikes when pursuing fleeing Taliban fighters into areas where they didn’t know whether civilians were around. Other times, unexpected encounters between coalition forces and enemy fighters led to battles lasting several hours or days "with airstrikes used to support small troop numbers on the ground resulting in civilian deaths."
As much as they recognize the difficulty, though, none of the soldiers or airmen want to see airstrikes taken away as Karzai proposed.
"It would ultimately place soldiers in harm’s way more often," Cleary said.
Said Thomas: "ISAF’s No. 1 priority is [preventing] civilian casualties. We don’t want to have any fratricide on our side or killing civilians. I think it would hurt, but we’re going to do what the commander says. It’s a tough one because there’s no soldier, sailor, airmen or Marine that I know of that wants to hurt any innocent civilian."
Who coordinates an airstrike?
Job: Provides the ground-level information
Gives the situation report, such as where personnel are and where the firing is coming from
Pushes information to the joint terminal attack controllers
Requests that the aircraft engage
FIRE SUPPORT OFFICER
Job: Gets the aircraft on station
Level: Company and higher
Updates the squadron on what’s going on
Analyzes the situation
Decides the best asset to request (mortars, artillery, rotary or fixed wing aircraft)
Clears the artillery to fire or contacts the aircraft
JOINT TERMINAL ATTACK CONTROLLER (JTAC)
Job: Coordinates and controls the aircraft
Level: Typically battalion and higher
Advises the commander about the airstrike, including choosing the proper platform and weapons
Sends the order to the aircraft telling it to attack
Last person to speak to the aircraft before the attack